I've started reading Jürgen Habermas, in the hope he will show me how to settle the anger and frustration I feel looking out at the world through the eyes of Illich. Illich was somehow able to think like he did without apparently getting eaten up by it...me on the other hand, I'm still learning.
I've so far read some of his first book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere 1962 (English 1989). At the same time I'm referring to a book of essays collected from a conference about Habermas' work, Habermas and the Public Sphere. Edited by Craig Calhorn.
Habermas saw a vibrant public sphere as a positive force keeping authorities within bounds lest their rulings be ridiculed... Today, in contrast, there is scant public debate, few public forums, and political discussion has degenerated from a fact-based rational-critical examination of public matters into a consumer commodity. There is the illusion of a public sphere, according to Habermas. Wikipedia editors June 2010
Chompsky's Manufacturing Consent immediately springs to mind just now, but what I really wanted to note here was the obvious connections this may have to considerations of Gov 2.0 being discussed by bourgeois Australians, and the idea that a new public sphere could be built online, through social media, based on participatory culture.
I think the class of people already in that sphere, discussing social media, connectivity, participation and Gov 2.0, has been up until recently, eclectic and fresh, and not requiring status necessarily (the long tail) - a positive thing according to Habermas. Certainly this absence of status has been the case for discussions about social media up until now, with bloggers over riding journalists, volunteers over riding contracted labor and academics, and individuals bringing politicians and corporations out onto the streets and sometimes into ridicule.
Australian Senator Kate Lundy and her officers have organised speaking events called The Public Sphere, with obvious reference to Habermas' ideals. These events are basically an open mic and wiki - open to seemingly anyone who wants to stand and speak. To a large degree, the design of the events is successful in subverting the barrier of status that limits open dialog and the discovery of innovative ideas in Australian discourse today, but is it really what Habermas describes?
As good as The Public Sphere events are, I think it must go further yet, and be more self conscious of the status and power dynamics implicit in the events. The open mic events are located in Parliament House, The wikis and discussions on the Senator's website, and the banter that goes through the social networks is almost impossible to follow. Habermas acknowledges the decline in the quality of debate when it is spread out from the hands of the elite, but argues that this is a necessary stage to go through, implying that it is possible to grow from it.
I've noticed a sudden change in the type of participation in the discussions about social media, and in particular the Gov 2.0 project. I'm not sure what it is, but perhaps a comparison between 2005 events like Blog Talk Down Under, and 2010 initiatives like Gov 2.0 au and Public Sphere give a faint impression... I want to say the quality of the discussion has degraded, or at least stagnated, but how might I prove such a thing? I can't, its a gut feeling.The opposite might just as well be true if status has any real meaning, because there is a noticeable increase of people with 'status' such as academic, journalist, politician and business people joining the discussion (as others perhaps leave). Recently we're seeing academic papers referencing only the works of other academics, a plethora of johnny-come-lately academic and institution blogs that lack any depth of network or authenticity, and National level conferences hosted and attended by politicians, public servant bosses and big business. To my ears, most of what is said in this new sphere with status, merely parrots what has been said for 7 years, or more if we take it back as far as Cluetrain.. further gets a bit abstract for me.
"Status" seems to be creeping into this new public sphere, and the quality and agenda of the debate is changing.. but into what? Is this the point at which the bosses came and take all the credit? How else could it be?... off to study Habermas some more.